With the fireworks of the last few days, it would be natural to look down the sights and champ at how those results set up a couple blockbuster head-to-head matchups in the coming weeks. But let's take a second to look back and appreciate what we saw this weekend, which was magnificent.
Here's a summary of the weekend's events, but if you're short on time, just remember to keep the afternoon of March the 22nd free.
Remember when Liverpool sucked and couldn't put the ball in the back of the net, not even during pregame warmups, and Daniel Sturridge was hurt and it looked like Mario Balotelli was their best hope of turning things around (which, LOL) and everyone had written off this season as the inescapable post-Suárez drop-off campaign? Yeah, we know you do, since you keep bucking at the notion that Liverpool, armed with their trusty new formation, are officially out here.
Yet another reminder that Liverpool are indeed once again the most entertaining if not the best team in England came with their 2-1 victory party over Manchester City on Sunday. Everything we've said before on the topic of the Reds' resurgence—like how the 3-4-2-1 gets all the Reds best players out on the pitch at the same time and maximizes their strengths of lightning-speed counters after forcing turnovers—was true once again here, so we'll save you the rehash and hurry past all that. Suffice to say that despite the fairly close scoreline, Liverpool easily looked like the better team and were well-deserved victors.
What should not go hurried past is the play of the little genius Philippe Coutinho, whom I would kidnap and dress in a Barça kit and force to perform his tricks in my backyard if I thought I could get away with it. He embodies everything I most value in a soccer player: his eye for the outlandish through ball, his confidence to say the hell with it and try them, his love for one-twos and other flicks with each and every part of his foot, his ability to writhe past defenders at full speed before slapping out a pass with a ridiculous angle, his insuppressible instinct to arch in unending streams of parabola shots towards the upper corners of the net regardless of how many previously sailed harmlessly into the stands—I could go on. Coutinho exists to make the best and most thrilling parts of the game happen. He is a first-order Brazilian.
The manner in which Coutinho controlled things against the reigning Premier League champions only furthered this infatuation. Coutinho is all runs and fun. (Though it should be said his underrated defensive effort, specifically in harrying Yaya Touré, prevented City from ever getting comfortable.) And the best part about how this most Brazilian of Brazilians plays is how infectious it is. Maybe it's simply a surrender to the natural order of Liverpool's flair players, but I can't help but feel it's the influence of Coutinho and Sturridge that inspires Emre Can to charge into attack from his deep starting position at the back, or Jordan Henderson to uncork a curler from outside the box on the break, or Joe Allen to flit his way between opponents before side-footing a pass to a teammate. He's an exhilarating player whose play urges teammates to aspire to exhilaration.
With Liverpool's victory, Manchester United's and Arsenal's wins, plus Southampton's loss, we now have a clearer picture of the race for the Champions League spots. Arsenal will probably end up with one of the two spots behind City and Chelsea, meaning Liverpool and United—currently separated by just two points—will duke it out for the final ticket on March 22nd in a red-on-red bloodbath between the two lost-and-eventually-found sides.
If Liverpool's win was so crucial for how those three points kept them within touching distance of their rivals for fourth, Real's draw against Villarreal was a boon for how it tripped the league leaders back a little closer to the rest of the pack in La Liga's title race. After Barcelona lost to Málaga the week before, it looked like the Blancos might have enough breathing space at the top to stave off the challengers regardless of what happened in the impending Clásico. Now, the most famous match in the sport may just determine who wins the league.
It's still difficult to get a good read on Real. The Madridistas haven't put together a completely convincing performance in at least a month and probably for the entirety of 2015, which has included one particularly painful humiliation at the hands of cross-town foes Atlético. What began the season as the deepest squad in the world has looked short-staffed because of injuries, curious freeze-outs, and fatigue; an attack that was so dominant in the 2014 half of the season hasn't been very fluid; and what was always going to be a shaky defense now gives up dangerous shots with alarming regularity. Yet even with these struggles, Real still demolish nearly all comers by multiple goals each week. Are the less-than-stellar performances bad omens for a real slump, or are the wins while not playing all that well evidence of their championship pedigree?
The Villarreal match fit very neatly with many of the other Real games in 2015. They started slowly in both attack and defense, very easily could've gone down one or two goals with better finishing from their opponents—who lined up with essentially a half-strength side with an eye toward resting up for their Copa del Rey semifinal against Barça this Wednesday—but eventually took the lead thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's ninth penalty and 30th overall goal of the league season.
Where so many other Spanish clubs would wilt in disappointment, the Yellow Submarine kept fighting. About ten minutes after Ronaldo's penalty, Villarreal threw on a couple of their best attacking players in Manu Trigueros and Luciano Vietto. With their reinvigorated offense, Gerard Moreno leveled the game with a smooth stroke from the top of the box in the 64th minute. Fitting the break-neck pace they like playing at, they kept pushing forward in search of the winning goal up until the final whistle. A draw was the least both teams deserved, but each probably went home thinking that with a couple lucky bounces, they could've and maybe should've taken all three points.
Villarreal have been one of La Liga's most attractive teams to watch this season. They stymie opponents defensively, then hit out at them with quick counters, and their roster is built like a Football Manager player's dream, packed with promising young guys with strong pedigrees who nevertheless hadn't yet caught on in favorable circumstances (Giovani dos Santos, Trigueros, Sergio Asenjo), a couple players on loan from bigger clubs (Denis Cheryshev, whose nine assists are the third-most in the league, Joel Campbell), some youngsters from abroad they snatched up before many knew about them (Vietto, Mateo Musacchio), and some veterans for their leadership and savvy (Bruno, Ikechukwu Uche). Basically, Villarreal are packed with fearless, hungry young talents and a couple key older guys to shape it all into something sustainable. They're firmly in the hunt for the European places, still have hope of even nabbing a Champions League berth, and can compete every week with the best teams the league has to offer. Their draw at the
Calderón Bernabéu was no fluke.
For the Blancos, there is no more room for error. The aforementioned Barcelona loss the week before coupled with Atlético's draw to Sevilla earlier that day meant Real could have maintained their perch atop the league even with a loss in the upcoming Clásico. Now with only two points separating first from second, the match against Barça is all the more critical in crowning the league champion. Oh, and when is that match to take place, you wonder? Why none other than March 22nd, the same day as Liverpool-United. The two most compelling races in world soccer might just be decided on the same day.
Those other two matches we've referenced might have set up pseudo-finals in a few weeks' time, but there was also a for real for real final on Sunday. Well, depending on how generous you want to be in extending importance to England's League Cup, which is mostly just a chance for either a beleaguered or silverware-thirsty club to pad their trophy cabinet with a title no one really cares about.
The match itself was about as interesting as the League Cup is important—which is to say, not that much. For as great a team as Chelsea are, they often are content to play some boring-ass soccer en route to their numerous victories. We were again treated to the spectacle of the Blues granting their opponents a lot of time on the ball away from the most dangerous areas, breaking on the counter with a few of their world-class players, and nicking a goal or two that way or on set pieces. It is effective, smart, probably laudable, and not at all compelling viewing.
Earlier in the season Chelsea did show that they can dominate matches both offensively and defensively, and hopefully they get back to that before the season's up. I'd rather praise a ridiculous Cesc Fàbregas chipped pass or a ankle-breaking Eden Hazard elastico than their collective defensive positioning.
Now if you want to watch a superclub systematically grind an opponent into sand, then erect a 25-story sandcastle with a cabana and adjacent parking structure out of the stuff, then knock it back down with wave after wave of tsunami-strength tides, then threaten to do it all over again until the final whistle blows, you should probably be watching what Bayern Munich are doing right now.
Of course, it took about a season for Pep Guardiola to get his Bayern team to look like a Guardiola team, but since it has clicked this season, the results have been devastatingly, unmercifully beautiful. There is a reason they've been the champions-elect since about the second month of the season, and it's not only because of Borussia Dortmund's shockingly unlucky—though finally ended, by the looks of things—season. An 8-point lead on second-place Wolfsburg might not look like too much, but then your eyes slide across the league table a little further and you see that their goal difference (+56) is over double Wolfsburg's (+26).
This Bayern team has fully transitioned from sledgehammer to nightstick, and yet the results are no less destructive. While they were once a team of super-sized giant-men who would almost literally run over their opponents on their way to the goal, they are now a team of super-sized giant-men who wedge themselves between the opponent's' lines, then crack apart the whole thing with their passing and movement. Their combination of patient possession, intricate passing, unending movement, high pressing, and quick transitions make them the most dominant team in the world. When they are on their game, as they have been in their last three Bundesliga matches (8-0, 6-0, 4-1) the only question is how ghastly the final line will be.
Bayern aren't the only team out in the Bundesliga putting up video game-like performances. Wolfsburg are making a habit of coming out on top of ridiculous shootouts. Their MVP so far this season has been former Chelsea player Kevin De Bruyne. His feet are in perpetual Y-button mode on FIFA. He and Cesc Fàbregas lead Europe's big five leagues with 15 assists, which is just stupid. In their three goal come-from-behind win, De Bruyne bagged three more assists. This after their 5-4 come-from-behind win against Leverkusen just a couple weeks ago.
The newest star to emerge from Wolfsburg's super season has been on Bas Dost. His two goals this weekend put him at 13 in the Bundesliga for the year … in just 12 appearances. This guy started the season as little more than roster filler and has become the hottest striker in Europe, scoring all but one of his goals just in the last seven league games. The guy is on a tear, and with De Bruyne teeing them up and Dost blasting them home, Wolfsburg are sure to guarantee themselves Champions League play next season.